The Barbarian and the Geisha
Action / Adventure / Drama / History
Directed by John Huston
Written by Charles Grayson and Ellis St. Joseph
Produced by Eugene Frenke
Cinematography by Charles G. Clark
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
John Wayne as Townsend Harris
Eiko Ando as Okichi
Sam Jaffe as Henry Heusken
So Yamamura as Baron Tamura
Norman Thomson as Ship captain
James Robbins as Lt. Fisher
Morita as Prime minister
Kodaya Ichikawa as Daimyo
Hiroshi Yamato as Shogun
Tokujiro Iketaniuchi as Harusha
Fuji Kasai as Lord Hotta
Townsend Harris arrives in Japan in 1856 as an American diplomat after the United States and Japan sign a treaty. Many Japanese are unhappy about the treaty, especially Baron Tamura, who refuses to honor the treaty, believing that all the negative things occurring in Japan since the signing of the treaty are warnings from the gods that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Tamura refuses to allow Harris to land on his province, but Harris does so anyway, confronting Tamura with the aid of his interpreter, Henry Heusken. Tamura steadfastly refuses to honor Harris’ title of Consul General, though he does reluctantly allow him to stay as a private citizen and provides him lodging in a ramshackle hut. Harris moves in and promptly flies the American flag over the dwelling, which infuriates Tamura who orders it removed. Tamura also tells the townspeople to shun the outsiders. Harris responds by drafting a letter to the Shogun, requesting that the Shogun order Tamura to recognize Harris’ position. The Imperial Court is still in turmoil regarding the signing of the treaty, but Tamura is instructed to keep Harris happy for the time being. Reluctantly Tamura acquiesces to the order, inviting Harris to dine with him. During the dinner, Tamura is able to discern that Harris has an interest in a lovely geisha named Okichi. Afterwards, Tamura orders Okichi to go to Harris, hoping that Harris will be preoccupied with the girl for a time and stay out of his way. After an awkward initial meeting, where Okichi is confused by the American’s ways, she warms up to his kindness and gentle nature. Harris in turn is angered to learn that Okichi’s poor family sold her as a geisha when she was very young. Okichi’s low public standing as a concubine also causes trouble for Harris, as his friendship with her is looked down upon by the women of the surrounding community.
Later, an American ship is spotted on the horizon, but doesn’t dock. Doing his duty, Harris rows out to discover the problem. The ship’s captain calls to Harris to inform him that the ship is suffering from an outbreak of cholera and to stay away. Several of the sick soldiers see the mainland as a refuge from dying on the ship and jump overboard to swim to shore. Harris tries to warn the townspeople to stay away from them so they don’t get sick, but his low social standing leads to his warnings going unheeded. Soon cholera spreads throughout the community, and even Okichi falls ill. The village deals with the illness in their old ways, praying and performing rituals. Harris knows that only frost or fire can kill the germs that spread the disease and sets several houses on fire. Tamura becomes furious at Harris’ actions and orders him under house arrest until the next ship arrives to take Harris away. Okichi, who has recovered, is heartbroken by the events, and falls into depression. Bitterly Harris packs his things, angered that his efforts have failed.
Shortly thereafter the outbreak passes, and the villagers come to thank Harris for saving their lives. Tamura agrees, and drops the house arrest order, informing Harris that the Shogun wishes to speak with him out of gratitude. In honor to Harris the villagers form a procession and escort him to Edo to speak with the Shogun. There, Harris has the distinct honor of being the first foreigner to be admitted to the Great Hall of Shogun in centuries. Harris shows the treaty to the Shogun, and advises that they work together to bring down the barriers that separate the two countries. The next day at a banquet in his honor, the rest of the council question Harris on the affairs of the U.S., asking particularly about the lawlessness of the Wild West and the continuation of slavery in the east. His answers do not appease all of the council and a few suggest that the two countries might be better served by keeping distance. Harris continues to argue for progress.
The next day a prominent member of the council, and supporter of the treaty, Lord Shido, is assassinated. Tamura, seeing the violence of Japanese politics on the horizon, urges Harris to leave, but Harris refuses, putting his duty before his safety. When the council meets, the treaty is passed, and several clans that were against the treaty react angrily. Tamura’s own clan is one of the clans resistant to the treaty, and they order Tamura to kill Harris. Tamura turns to Okichi, who swore an oath of undying loyalty to Tamura, to help him kill Harris. Harris in the meantime returns to Okichi and hints at marriage, causing the poor Okichi much dismay because of her oath to Tamura. Following her orders from Tamura, Okichi leaves and ties a red scarf to Harris’ door, letting Tamura know that he is sleeping inside. Tamura sneaks into the house, drawing his sword to kill Harris, but when he pulls back the covers, he finds Okichi instead. His plot thwarted, he attempts to flee the house but finds Harris in the hallway where he cuts the red scarf in half, and tells Harris to take his life back before fleeing. Okichi explains to a bewildered Harris that Tamura now must take his own life for his failure to do his duty. Harris goes to Tamura’s home to stop him, but is too late; Tamura has committed seppuku, falling on his own sword. Okichi also feels she must punish herself for her betrayal of Tamura, and leaves Harris, leaving only a mirror as a memento of the time she shared with him. The villagers arrive to congratulate Harris on the passing of the treaty, carrying him through the town on their shoulders as a tearful Okichi looks on in admiration.
The Barbarian and the Geisha is based on the true story, and beloved Japanese folk tales, of Townsend Harris and his romance with a 17 year old geisha named Kichi.
Director John Huston was so dismayed with the studio editing that he wanted his name removed from the film. Huston was attempting to make a movie that was in keeping with the Japanese tradition of film, which the studio destroyed with editing. Huston also believed that John Wayne directed the shooting of a number of additional scenes after Huston had departed from the set to begin filming on his next film, The Roots of Heaven.
John Wayne became so enraged with John Huston on the set that he throttled him and punched him out. What Huston did to earn Wayne’s rage is unknown, but Huston was renowned for having a mean streak.
Huston originally wanted an all Japanese crew for the film, but was overruled by the studio.
Director Anthony Mann originally bought the rights to the story, but could not get a big enough star to play the lead. He eventually sold the rights to 20th Century Fox.